To Beat Netanyahu, Herzog Needs to Lift Labor's Old Curse

Labor is too toxic, too weighed down by history, too unimaginative to reinvent itself. If it wins next week, it will be by default.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Isaac Herzog at the Israel Conference on Democracy, February 17, 2015.Credit: Moti Milrod
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Those coming back from the anti-Netanyahu rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday night were upbeat. “There was a great energy there, of real change” one usually cynical friend reported. But was it like 1999, I asked. My friend hesitated for a second. “No, it wasn’t. Not the same,” he admitted.

A Labor Party candidate has not won an Israeli election since Ehud Barak 16 years ago. While the over 30,000 people at the rally felt a breeze of change, all the indications are that it may not be enough to blow Benjamin Netanyahu out of the Prime Minister’s Office. Likud is in trouble, but at the same time, there doesn’t seem to be massive momentum building up behind Isaac Herzog or his party. All things considered, by this stage he should have been opening up a sizable gap in the polls. None of the speakers at the rally mentioned him by name and nearly all the banners belonged to Meretz and Peace Now. Very few of Labor’s (and Hatnuah’s) Zionist Union list.

Not that rallies are an indication of anything nowadays. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in the social protests of summer 2011, which, while not overtly political, were largely aimed at Netanyahu’s policies. He still comfortably won the election in January 2013. Saying that elections today are fought online may be a miserable cliche, but it’s the truth, and so far both sides in the cyberbattle are hunkered down in their trenches, embarking on ineffectual forays over the top that fail to break through the lines.

Hollow victory?

Herzog can win but unless all the polls are dramatically wrong, it won’t be much of a victory. He will win because Netanyahu has finally outstayed his welcome and even the leaders of right-leaning parties don’t want to serve in his fourth government. Herzog will become a prime minister by default, beholden to his partners, led by Tzipi Livni, who has been promised half the prime ministerial term, and forced to concede most of the key cabinet portfolios to other parties in his uneasy coalition.

Barring a surge in the final week of campaigning, which the polls so far have failed to detect, Herzog has failed to shake off the curse that has attached itself to every Labor leader in the last two decades: He “isn’t taking off.”

Ironically, that label was first applied to Barak, who for his first two years as head of Labor, failed to close the gap with Netanyahu, then in his first term as premier.

Barak did take off in the end, but the curse has stayed with every Labor leader ever since. Each one of them had to endure the whispering campaign behind their back, the self-fulfilling prophecy that he or she “isn’t taking off.” Even this week, a senior Labor MK and potential challenger for the party leadership could be heard behind the scenes of a television studio grumbling of Herzog’s lack of lift power, and predicting a primary before the year is out.

Herzog’s personal failings as a candidate have been dissected at length, as have the tactical errors of the Zionist Union’s campaign. But his recent predecessors, Amram Mitzna, Amir Peretz, Barak (on his third election as leader) and Shelly Yacimovich did not lack for charisma and ran effective campaigns. Yet they each failed to take off; all receiving less than 20 Knesset seats. Herzog is the first Labor leader in nearly 15 years constantly polling at over 20 seats on the eve of elections, and still he is stuck on 23-24, trundling down the runway, failing to achieve liftoff. And even to reach this current level he had to buy Livni’s endorsement with the promise of two years at the top.

Netanyahu not omnipotent

Herzog has failed to reinvent his party, but he shares responsibility with Labor’s entire hierarchy going back 20 years to Shimon Peres on the morning after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. None of the reasons given for Labor’s endemic weakness are conclusive. Netanyahu is not omnipotent; he was sorely beaten in 1999 and 2006. His two defeats to centrist candidates also prove that the fabled shift to the right of the Israeli electorate is nowhere near as clear-cut as some believe. The two parties in the center, Yesh Atid and Kulanu, are together receiving nearly as many votes as Zionist Union in the polls. Their leaders, Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon, both detest Netanyahu but both are steadfastly refusing to endorse Herzog. It’s not Herzog himself they have a problem with, it’s the party he personifies, which is too toxic to touch.

The Labor Zionist movement almost single-handedly established the State of Israel and ensured its existence for the first three decades. But all that time in power bred resentment that continues to linger. Too many felt left out and they flocked to Likud. Eventually the disgruntled underdogs formed the majority. For a brief period in the early 1990s, it looked as if the party’s last two great leaders, Rabin and Peres, were securing it a new lease on life. Yet their successors squandered the legacy and failed to reinvent Labor as a natural ruling party. They failed to build a new Zionist narrative powerful enough to overcome Netanyahu’s potent mix of persecution phobia, special interests and narrow identity politics.

Barak and Mitzna tried to cast themselves as the successors of Rabin and Moshe Dayan, tough generals turned peacemakers, but failed to realize that Labor had to make a clean break with its past. Peretz and Yacimovich presented themselves as social democratic reformers but succeeded only in transforming Labor into a niche party.

Given time, Herzog could be the leader to detoxify Labor. He was born into the party’s elite and knows its values and failings better than anyone. He is creative, intelligent and diplomatic enough to fashion a new narrative and build bridges to new audiences. Meanwhile, he isn’t possessed of a massive ego that prevents him from listening and learning from mistakes. But his one great drawback – that nearly fatal lack of charisma – means he cannot achieve any of this quickly. His 20 months as Labor leader have not nearly been enough time.

If Herzog somehow scrapes across the line next week and succeeds in cobbling together a coalition, he will use the prominence of office to recast Labor’s image. If Netanyahu wins a fourth term, Herzog will almost certainly be brought down by his inhouse rivals – thus making him the latest victim of the curse of a party whose leaders cannot take off.